ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bob Ulibarri said that on a mission in Vietnam he marched right over and past a land mine, which then exploded and killed Daniel Chavez, a good friend from Albuquerque who was walking behind him carrying ammunition.
On Saturday, the Army veteran found a picture of Chavez on a wall at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial that honors all the New Mexicans who were killed in Vietnam.
“To this day, when I think about him, he’s still the 20-year-old that I knew then,” Ulibarri said. “How did I miss it and he get it?”
Throughout the country, many war survivors and others commemorated the Vietnam War on Saturday, the 41st anniversary of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces.
Ulibarri was one of several Vietnam veterans who shared war stories during a ceremony at the veterans park in southeast Albuquerque. A couple of dozen or so people attended.
Some men spoke of the camaraderie among soldiers and the pain they felt when fellow warriors were killed. One pilot talked about dropping napalm in the morning, then doing civic work, like building schools, in the afternoon.
Drafted a year after he graduated from Highland High School in 1968, Ulibarri became an infantryman in the U.S. Army and served for 15 months in Vietnam. He was awarded three Purple Heart medals for injuries he suffered there, including one just three days into his stint, he said.
“It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times,” he said. “We joked as much as we could to keep ourselves going.”
The war took the lives of 58,000 Americans, including 395 from New Mexico, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.
Don Loftis, president of the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Foundation and a Vietnam vet, said veterans also think about the Vietnamese citizens who were killed.
He shared a poem and a story about an encounter he had with a young Vietnamese girl, an experience that has stayed with him over the years.
Loftis was drafted after four years of college at the University of Texas-El Paso and ended up as a lieutenant in the Army who advised South Vietnam forces.
He said that while working near a rubber plantation in the southern part of the country, a young girl was badly injured by a white phosphorous grenade.
Loftis said he still remembers trying to help the girl into an emergency medical helicopter, but her flesh fell into his hands when he touched her.
He was able to get her on the helicopter, but he doesn’t know if she survived.
“I tried to find out. I’m almost sure she died. Her whole body was burned,” he said. “There’s very tough memories. But that’s probably one of my toughest.”